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Why isn’t a Seoul shopping mall freeing its captive whale?

Bella the beluga lives in a small tank, all alone, at one of South Korea’s biggest malls. Those campaigning for her release say this captivity is cruel.

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UPDATED: 21 May 2024, 7:49 am

Animal rights campaigners in South Korea are urgently calling for the release of a beluga whale living in a cramped tank at the base of Seoul’s Lotte World Tower. The whale, named Bella, has spent more than a decade as a mall “attraction” – the past four of them on her own, the Guardian reports.

Bella was captured in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Russia in 2013, when she was two years old. She was sold to Lotte Group along with two other belugas, both of whom have since died prematurely. The last death, in 2019, sparked a campaign to free Bella, as belugas are highly social creatures.

Lotte Group promised to re-home the whale back in 2019, but plans stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and unforeseen hold-ups at the Icelandic sanctuary set to take her in, the Guardian says.

[See more: Will the next generation see Chinese white dolphins in Macao waters?]

In a bid to get things moving again, activists have staged protests outside the mall and launched an international petition to see Bella “retired” from her side-show career. They point out that “Lotte is one of the richest corporations in South Korea and has the financial means to help create a sanctuary for Bella in order for her to be rehabilitated and evaluated for release back into the ocean.”

Leading activist Jo Yak-gol, has described the beluga whale as exhibiting symptoms of “stress and boredom due to her solitary confinement,” often spinning in circles or floating listlessly on the water’s surface.

Marine biologist Valeria Vergara told the Guardian that keeping beluga whales in captivity was “simply unethical” due to their social, cooperative natures, complex communication systems and long lives (up to 50 years in the wild). 

[See more: Is Macao’s environmental authority wrong about dolphin habitats?]

She also explained that releasing Bella directly into the sea was not a viable solution, as the whale never had the opportunity to learn how to hunt and migrate. A specialised rehabilitation sanctuary was “the only ethical option” for her, according to Vergara.

Lotte World has said it was engaging with a committee composed of South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, animal rights groups and whale experts to ensure Bella’s eventual release was “based on a scientific and practical plan”.

South Korea’s laws are tightening on its thriving aquarium industry. Last year, the government banned buying whales and dolphins for display (the law does not apply retroactively), and forbade facilities with dolphins from letting the public ride them.

UPDATED: 21 May 2024, 7:49 am

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